Ken Smith sez: This film marks Centron at its melodramatic apogee. "This is the story of Bruce Jones, who walked in the shadow of hate and suspicion. The shadow of what he was because of his background." With this bit of bombast to put us in a proper frame of mind, the film begins -- as a waist-down tracking shot follows the tattered jeans and scuffed shoes of Bruce shuffling along a sidewalk, while the freshly-pressed chinos and spic and span saddle shoes of his peers (see How To Be Well Groomed, Let's Be Clean And Neat, etc.) stride arrogantly in the opposite direction.
We never actually see Bruce "since he is a symbol for any or all of the minority groups," but we see plenty of his white bread, middle America classmates as they bitch and moan about this "undesirable element." "I don't know why they let people like him go to our school anyway," gripes one. "My dad made it plain I'm not to associate with him," adds a second. "He's not like us and he never will be," proclaims a third. Bruce is suspected of everything from starting fights to stealing sweaters, but then, on the night of the big dance, comes shocking news: "Tom" and "Carol" have smashed their car into a bridge abuttment, but their lives were saved when Bruce happened along and pulled them from the burning wreck! "As he was helping Tom, the gas tank exploded," one of the teens relates. "Bruce was burned severely."
Now the same kids who earlier vilified Bruce suddenly make a 180 degree turn toward bleeding heart liberalism and we're treated to a series of shots of them in the hospital emergency room, looking repentant, while voice-overs convey their shame. "If Bruce doesn't make it, how will I ever be able to face myself after what I've done to him?" thinks one. "I just hope I can somehow work out a new set of values to judge him by in the future," thinks another. "You hear about other people's prejudice, but you never feel guilty until you realize it's you! YOU'RE the one who's prejudiced!" concludes a third.
"This trip to the hospital," the narrator proclaims, "could be the first step for these students of East High toward tearing down the false barriers which their own bias and prejudice have built. What do YOU think?" The big question mark appears and Centron heads into the sixties at full throttle.
What About Prejudice? was part of a series of Young America productions, the "Discussion Problems in Group Living" series, with titles like What About Drinking? (1954), The Griper (1954), What About Juvenile Delinquency? (1955) and What About School Spirit? (1958). But this film marked a real departure.
Centron Films was located in Lawrence, Kansas, where John Brown fought for the abolition of slavery, and 22 miles from Topeka, where racial segregation in the public schools was first ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1954. By 1959, local conflicts over school integration (notably President Eisenhower's battle with Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus over integration in Little Rock) had been played on television news before national audiences.
The placidity and relatively trivial concerns of most postwar social guidance films belie the intense conflicts of the period. It's almost impossible to find educational films that contain any serious consideration or debate over issues such as labor unions, communism, civil rights or nuclear proliferation. Such subjects were considered taboo by large educational film distributors, who were unwilling to produce titles that might offend conservative sensibilities in some regions of the United States. But in 1959 Centron stepped out with What About Prejudice?, certainly one of the first films for teenagers that took a point of view, however vague, on a controversial issue.
"This is the story of Bruce Jones who walked in a shadow of hate and suspicion. The shadow of what he was because of his background, over which he had no control." Bruce Jones represents the Other. His face is never shown Ñ only his feet Ñ so we won't know whether he's of a different race, social class or nationality. And Bruce always seems to be getting into trouble. First there's a fight between Bruce and another boy, whose nose is bloodied; then an incident involving a missing sweater. Since Bruce can't speak for himself, all we know of him and of these incidents is what we hear from a nasty clique of well-dressed, white bobbysoxers.
But then Bruce redeems himself in the eyes of his enemies Ñ at great personal cost. The truth about the incidents we have already seen begins to emerge. Without being a spoiler, we'll confirm that Bruce suffers greatly to gain the respect of his fellow students. While Bruce's future hangs in the balance, they confront their personal prejudices and try to reconsider their values. "The thing is, it wasn't Bruce at all. I was the one," says one student. "Neatly fitting people into categories because of where they go to church, what their fathers do, or what the color of their skin is. You hear about other people's prejudice, but you never feel guilty until you realize it's you Ñ you're the one that's prejudiced." Like the other "Discussion Problems in Group Living" films, this ends with a large question mark.
Whether or not such dire punishment is necessary to gain redemption, Bruce must pay dearly for acceptance by the group. It's as if the victim of hate is sacrificed so that the haters can learn how not to hate; an uncomfortably Christ-like fate for Bruce. I won't go as far as to say that What About Prejudice? signifies an enlightened victory over prejudice or racism. It expresses the limits and contradictions of its times, and does so with great discomfort. Nonetheless, this film marks a sharp divide between the attitudes of the repressed Fifties and the turbulent Sixties, and points to the new kind of social guidance films that arose, films that left behind questions of popularity and school spirit, taking up urgent (and divisive) social problems.
Centron shot its social guidance films in and around Lawrence, using nonprofessional actors from the nearby University of Kansas and elsewhere. Their films collectively form an unusually interesting record of the "look and feel" of Lawrence and the surrounding area throughout the postwar years. While Centron, like other producers, avoided explicit regional references in most of its films, it also made no attempt to homogenize the distinctive speech and mannerisms of its prairie-reared talent and, perhaps without intending to do so, made movies that have real ethnographic and documentary value in addition to their declared subject matter.
PREJUDICE STUDENTS CLASSMATES SCHOOLS EMOTIONS CIVAL RIGHTS NEW FRONTIER SIXTIES MENTALITY